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Biden’s Washington and climate action

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  • Picture of Afifa Waheed FRSA
    Afifa Waheed FRSA
  • Climate change

As the US election 2020 hung in the balance, so did the future of our planet, with the US formally withdrawing from the Paris climate accords the day after the election. Afifa Waheed FRSA argues that for the climate community around the world, Joe Biden’s win is only a steppingstone to this seemingly long healing process.

Climate is a central part of president-elect Joe Biden’s platform: this won’t ameliorate disputes right away, but does mean he can immediately reverse some of President Trump’s policies coming January through executive authority. For this, he does not require Congressional approval but the road to climate recovery will still be laborious and bumpy. 

In recent years, the US has seen some major deregulatory ambitions. The Trump administration rolled back Obama-era environmental legacy and replaced the Clean Power Plan with weaker regulation. Washington has been frequently targeting regulations governing the production and use of fossil fuels; regulations that oversee production on public lands have also been a target. 

President Trump’s efforts were not limited to taking the US out of the Paris agreement. His administration’s aim was to create more deals by lifting bans on oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and parts of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, in coastal waters around the United States, and in areas formerly protected as National Monuments in Utah.

The withdrawal from the Paris agreement means increased emissions now and in the coming days. And since the initial announcement, the US has been on a downward spiral; falling three positions in last year’s ranking, it has now sunk to the bottom. But the revocation had some surprising positive impacts. On a local level, the US’s reluctance prompted over 2,700 states, cities and businesses to rally behind the Paris agreement under the banner “We Are Still In”. On the other hand, extraordinarily, international allies like the G-20 members Saudi Arabia, China, Japan and Germany acknowledged that Paris was irreversible. 

Climate Champions

The world can certainly do with a mobilised, accommodating Washington, but regardless of this, climate leaders remain alive and active not only on American soil but across the globe.

Chile, Iceland, Barbados, South Korea, Norway have all embraced a science-based approach to fishing. Misool in Raja Ampat, Indonesia now protects the richest reefs on earth. The Indian subcontinent has not only managed to preserve its tiger population, but India – despite being the third biggest emitter – ranks high in climate protection. Meanwhile, the ‘once extinct’ Arabian Oryx has been reintroduced in the Middle East and wealthy Brunei’s lush rainforest remains untouched. Morocco has installed one of the largest solar farms in the world and Bhutan is the first nation to be carbon negative, thanks to its nature, agriculture industry, and the constitution.

Albeit slowly, some nations have been doing their fair share to reduce the impacts of climate change on their local communities. Whether this is sustainable fishing, reintroducing wildlife, or taking care of the oceans.

Recent years have also seen climate litigations double. This includes a major climate ruling based on the Paris agreement this year, when a UK Court of Appeal ruled that proposals to expand Heathrow Airport were unlawful. In the US though, climate activism is a constant battle between state and federal courts.

Perhaps, more importantly, we should look back on our ancestors’ homes. Humans (and animals) have persevered some of the most challenging surroundings in history by employing knowledge passed down from generations. Indigenous communities across the globe have been fishing selectively for thousands of years; a tradition passed down from their predecessors. To these communities ‘sustainability’ simply means heritage, culture and life.

Leadership in America

Already forging ahead with plans, from launching a transition website to preparing a task force, the Biden team will seek to re-join the Paris Climate agreement as soon as possible; reversing the pull-out should only require about a month’s notice. Biden’s new plan carries a price tag of $2 trillion. It calls for the elimination of carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2035 and indicates plans to impose stricter gas mileage standards, fund investments to insulate millions of homes and commercial buildings and upgrading the nation’s transportation system.

According to experts, under the new regime, Washington could use its influence to encourage nations like Russia, Australia and Brazil to speed up their climate efforts; particularly Brazil, which is seeing increased deforestation and destruction of the Amazon rainforest. China, and India along with the European Union had already vowed to fill the gap left by the US. To be able to exert greater influence on America’s allies, Biden’s Washington has to go beyond diplomatic niceties. The future administration has to prove that they are adept to implement these 180-degree-turn climate policies, in order to be a credible leader on the world stage. 

Biden’s ambitious plans could be hamstrung if he faces opposition from lawmakers and a majority-Republican Senate. This means Biden and Vice-President elect, Kamala Harris, will have to push their policy changes through Congress and work with Republican Senators. The challenge will be to reach some sort of consensus, taking a balanced approach to fulfilling Biden’s climate goals to the fullest.

The US is still facing the residual damage of colonialism, and while in the US, the major setback is a racially unjust society, across the globe it is a class or caste issue. Unfortunately, Black, Hispanic and Native Americans are most at risk from climate change and have access to fewer resources. Communities of colour are disproportionately exposed to the most hazardous form of environmental pollution. That is not say that working class white Americans or other low-income groups are not overburdened with climate threats. But people of colour, especially young people, are always the first to protest in any climate response. Washington would do well to remember that climate adaptation is far more difficult in divided humanity and when there are low levels of trust in government.

Not too late 

The US is feeling the snowball effect of life under Trumpism. But while many Americans and many around the world may want to tune out and breathe a sigh of relief; this is a luxury we cannot afford. We must utilise President-elect Biden’s platform to keep moving forward, hopefully not only encouraging the US’s neighbours across the Atlantic and the Pacific but also former (and rising) superpowers like China, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

The global response to the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a reduction of both greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. Nature has shown time and again its ability to heal very quickly when given the opportunity.

As I write this piece, millions of tons of ice are breaking free somewhere in the Arctic rising sea levels, disrupting the cycle of nature. We need a globally a coordinated response to both reversing to these changes and adapting to their impact. But minus the politics, we can all take our own baby steps to slow down impacts of climate change and there are various ways we can step in right now as ordinary citizens.

Afifa is a legal professional, researcher and former UN advisor on social, humanitarian and cultural issues.

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